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Writing Screenplays with Highland

A while back I described Fountain, a markup syntax for screenwriting (see “Formatting Screenplays with Fountain,” 5 March 2015). To recap briefly, Fountain allows screenwriters to use just about any text editor, on just about any platform, to compose a screenplay by employing a few simple formatting conventions: Fountain files can easily be converted into traditionally formatted screenplay documents using any one of a number of apps.

While the need to use a separate format converter app might seem an annoying extra step, it isn’t that cumbersome in practice: traditional screenplay format itself is a cumbersome thing to wrangle when you’re revising and editing a burgeoning masterpiece. Besides, Fountain files, by design, look just enough like screenplay layout not to appear distractingly alien while you’re writing and revising. Furthermore, you only need to do the conversion when you want to share your work with someone else. In any case, the advantage of being able to move your screenplay file from device to device, using whatever text editor is available, is enormous for the stereotypical coffee-shop-inhabiting screenplay scrivener.

Nonetheless, it would be nice to have a standard text-editing app that understood Fountain syntax and could produce a formatted screenplay at the click of a mouse. So nice, in fact, that one of the minds behind Fountain itself leads a team at Quote-Unquote Apps that has produced such a solution: the $29.99 Highland, a simple, Fountain-savvy text editor and screenplay formatting app in one.

In fact, Highland does more than just edit Fountain text files and output them as formatted screenplay PDFs. It can also import screenplay PDFs and convert them to Fountain text files (a process that Highland refers to as “melting”), and it can import and export files from Final Draft, a popular high-end word processor dedicated to screenplay writing.

As a text editor, Highland has few bells and whistles, which is not a bad thing: the more features an app has, the more features you have to understand and set up. (And Fountain files being mere text, it’s easy to fall back on something like BBEdit if you need powerful text manipulation tools.) Like a sheet of paper in a typewriter, the editing screen in Highland is a simple expanse of white emptiness, waiting to be filled with action and dialogue. The only on-screen controls are the two toggle buttons at the top of the left margin (to switch between editing text and viewing the formatted result) and an export button at the bottom of the left margin.


If white is not your preferred background color, you can switch to Dark Mode, which also colors the scene headings in your Fountain text to make them stand out. And, to eliminate distractions that might trip your procrastination switch, you can use Highland’s full-screen view; in it, Highland is smart enough to present the text in a readable column down the center of the screen instead of stretching the text out across the screen’s full width. You can also show or hide invisible characters, like spaces, tabs, and returns.

Because Highland’s editor is Fountain-savvy, it provides some useful conveniences. For example, you can press Shift-Return anywhere in a line of text to make it upper case: useful for scene and dialogue headings. And it colors text that, by Fountain’s syntax rules, constitute notes or discarded material (the latter known as “boneyard” text in Fountain). Highland also has a menu item for inserting “markers” and for navigating among them: these markers are nothing more than Fountain notes consisting of a single percent symbol, so you can insert or remove them with any text editor.

Rounding things out, Highland provides menu commands for marking boneyard text, and for bolding, centering, italicizing, and underlining text using Fountain syntax. You can also “force” scene headings and transitions using Fountain syntax if those headings or transitions don’t meet the Fountain syntax requirements on their own (for example, any scene headings that don’t begin with INT or EXT). It even provides a facility for generating a standard title page for your screenplay.

Highland comes with a built-in editing font, named Highland Sans, and a built-in preview font, Courier Prime, both of which are very readable. But you can choose any of the fonts you have on your Mac for those purposes instead if you prefer. You can also adjust the width of the editing column and its line spacing, and set some options for the preview view, such as whether scene headings are bold, and whether dialogue interrupted by a page break adds the “MORE” and “CONT’D” text typically used in screenplays.

When it comes to importing screenplay PDFs, Highland does a creditable, if not always perfect job with PDFs that include embedded text; PDFs that contain only images of text (such as screenplays scanned from paper) need to be run through an app that can perform OCR on such images (such as Smile’s PDFpen). You may encounter a few oddities: for example, when I converted a PDF of “The Social Network” screenplay that I obtained from a friend in “the industry,” I noted that non-standard scene headings didn’t import as headings. In most cases, the amount of work you’ll have to do on most “melted” screenplay PDFs to correct such infelicities is minimal.

Highland can export standard Final Draft FDX files (which are XML files), and it can import them as well, though it ignores any features in Final Draft files that aren’t covered by the Fountain specification, such as starred revisions. However, as Fountain evolves to include new features, Highland’s developers intend to incorporate as many of those as possible.

As an aside, if you are traveling light with just an iPad or iPhone, Quote-Unquote Apps has something for you: although the company doesn’t (yet) provide a version of Highland for iOS, it does offer Weekend Read, an iOS reading app that can open any text file and present Fountain-formatted text in standard screenplay layout. Weekend Read can also import and display standard Markdown files, FDX files, and even screenplay PDFs. It is also iCloud Drive-savvy, so if you save your Highland files on your Mac in iCloud Drive, Weekend Read can display them.

As writing tools go, Highland is a one-trick pony. But it is a friendly and engaging pony and, if you have the urge to dabble in screenwriting, it’s one worth taking for a ride.

By the way: why the name “Highland”? For reasons related to those for the name “Fountain” — if you follow Bette Davis’s advice and take Fountain Avenue as the fastest route to get to Hollywood, you’ll want to turn north when you reach the intersection of Fountain and Highland.


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Comments about Writing Screenplays with Highland
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Anonymous  2015-05-18 15:20
One might also consider the OS X app 'Slugline' which lists at $39 (but is periodically on sale). Very similar feature set.